A boarding house hostess in Turin peeks through a keyhole and sees a brand naked man dancing in orgiastic pirouettes, alone. Occasionally he improvises wildly on the piano. This is how Peter Michalzik sets the stage for the book Vegetarier, Künstler und Visionäre suchen nach dem Neuen Paradies(" Vegetarians, artists and visionaries seek a new paradise"). The naked dancer is one of the most influential philosophers of all time – Friedrich Nietzsche. In Thus spoke Zarathustra he described the ideal: the free individual, detached from the common, from the flock, from God. In search of a Dionysian energy, which creates a new self, the "superman".
When all ties to the existing are cut, we are quickly in a threatening no-man's land. Nietzsche inexplicably foresaw his own fate: "Ten years of genius, ten years of illness." His last years the genius spent in silent helplessness, in the custody of his sister. A life closer to nature.
The naked man was the natural man.
But sources of inspiration are immortal. We find Nietzsche's spirit in Monte Verita ("Mountain of Truth"), a phenomenon that is both down-to-earth and utopian, a center for defectors of many kinds on a hill on Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. In the break between old and new times at the turn of the century 1900, a group of individualists gathered who wanted to free themselves from the shackles of society and dedicate themselves to innovation.
They were pacifists, writers, painters, dancers, vegetarians, anarchists, political rebels, self-proclaimed prophets with long hair and headbands, so-called traveling apostles – and they all sought a truer, simpler, healing life, a life closer to nature, without pressure and money. Another of their great role models was the Russian nobleman and writer Lev Tolstoy, who wanted to get rid of his fortune and live an ascetic life in the country (much to the chagrin of his wife, in charge of the children).
Monte Verità started as a collective project. A handful of entrepreneurs, however, agreed: Paying taxes, serving in the military, or serving the state in any way was considered evil. The rules were clear: An employee system required everyone to contribute work. However, the work was voluntary, as everything reminiscent of exploitation had to be avoided – something that eventually inevitably created problems of a disciplinary and financial nature.
Dance, music and vegetarian food
Healthy, vegetarian, self-produced food was more important than all the world's moral standards. Air and light were significant healing factors. The naked man was the natural man, and the body was a temple. Curious locals in Ascona took trips to Monte Verità and were able to observe naked men and women with picks and shovels, possibly wearing home-made leather sandals (for those who agreed to use animal products).
The entrepreneurial couple above all others were the Belgian industrialist Henri Oeverkoven, who had put city life and business behind him, and the pianist Ida Hoffmann. The two lived together in a "free" marriage. They planted and built. A sanatorium was to offer cures for civilization defectors. Eventually, dance and music in the open air came to play an increasingly important role. Nocturnal nude dancing, weather allowing. Natural intoxication.
Soon Monte Verità attracted international attention and celebrities, all of whom spent time in this community. There were the poets Hermann Hesse, Gerhard Hauptmann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fritz Brupbacher, one of Switzerland's leading anarchists, the Russian anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Alekseevich Kropotkin.
Suicide and cocaine abuse
The German sociologist Max Weberunderwent several cures on the hill. He also profited from the circle's norms of freedom and, according to Michalzik, became involved in several affairs with women, undisturbed by whether they had other lovers or husbands. Jealousy belonged to one of the chains of society that was to be broken. It often worked poorly, even for Weber, but to a greater extent for the women. Monte Verità experienced as many as six suicides, all committed by women.
Here, one member of the circle played a significant role: lecturer in psychopathology Otto Gross. Michalzik describes a great charismatic and seducer, who by his cocaine abuse burned his own and others' light at both ends. Two women close to him died of an overdose, and Gross was the man with the drug at hand.
Finally, he underwent – uselessly – a weaning regimen and an analysis by Carl Gustav Jung, who later admitted to having found such great interest in Otto Gross that he let several of his ideas seep through to his own research. Gross had then fled the clinic, but later he still ended up in an asylum for mental illness, and eventually this gifted turbo man died ill, impoverished and lonely.
For decades Monte Verita passed as a vibrant center and inspiration for ideas that would reverberate into our present day. Divergent intentions and the First World War caused the experiment to ebb.
Peter Michalzik builds the story anecdotally, based on writings and legends. Strangely enough, he does not go into any evaluation.
Both comic and tragic elements permeate the phenomenon Monte Verità. At the same time, it is characterized by groundbreaking currents with inspiring ideas. The book also enjoys an unintentional timeliness: Those who do not get enough of good advice on how best to get through a suffocating pandemic, will find many a pointer in the book 1900. In harmony with nature, where all healing is available.